Tar Heel mom celebrates her degree

A mother of nine, Class of 2020 grad Jennifer Cooper balanced her academics with raising a family on her way to earning a college degree.

Jennifer Cooper in her office.

Graduations usually feature parents cheering for their children who are receiving their degrees, but in Jennifer Cooper’s case, the roles are reversed.

The Carolina Class of 2020 graduate plans to celebrate her degrees in history and religious studies with her husband and nine children, who range in age from 13 to 30.

Since graduating in May 2020, Cooper has stayed close to the classroom. She’s teaching eighth-grade social studies and language arts at West Lee Middle School near her home in Sanford, North Carolina, where her oldest daughter also teaches, and her youngest son is a student. She is currently working on completing the requirements for her teaching certification.

Cooper and four of her children have Carolina degrees, and her son, Nicholas, is currently a first-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill. She hopes the number of Tar Heels in her family will grow as her younger children reach college age.

Ahead of this weekend’s Class of 2020 celebrations, we caught up with Cooper to learn about her Carolina experience and her new career.

How much of a challenge was it to juggle your coursework at Carolina with your family responsibilities?

I’m not going to lie. It was tough, especially trying to keep up with my mom responsibilities. I wanted to show up to my children’s swim meets, performances and all the extra-curricular things that matter so much. But then you’ve got homework, and you’ve got papers that are due. I found myself pulling all-nighters sometimes. I would never suggest anyone do that, but there I was doing it myself. You make it work.

The thing that I loved about UNC was the professors were so fantastic to work with. They see that you are really trying to understand the material. They also see that you have a life and aren’t messing around. They were just so understanding and helpful with that. It was absolutely fantastic support.

What led you to become a teacher?

I had initially intended to go into psychology when I got to Carolina, but as I continued taking classes, history really seemed to grab me. I thought, “What can I do with a history degree?” And education is obviously one of the things that you can do with that. There’s a shortage of teachers, and I just felt like that was a good fit for me, especially considering I have children that are still in school.

Teenagers are the age group that most people say, “Oh, I don’t want to work with them,” but they’re actually my favorite age to work with. So, to have the opportunity to be in an educational setting, to open some minds for the future, it was appealing. And fortunately, I’ve been able to step into that.

What would you say to other non-traditional students who are thinking about getting their college degrees?

First and foremost, you are never too old to do something. Even if it feels awkward sitting in a class with students younger than your children, do it. Don’t let the awkwardness hold you back. You’re never too old to keep learning, to keep growing and to keep developing.

There’s no reason to stop. Age is really just a number, and it’s something that we construct in our head — at a certain age, I should be here, and at another age, I should be there. But that’s not really reality.

We create our own realities. So go do it. Don’t put it off. Don’t think, “Oh, because I’m older, I can’t do that now.” You can do anything you set your mind to. It’s just a matter of how determined you are.

What will it feel like to celebrate your graduation?

I did go ahead and get my gown, cap and stole and everything, so I’m definitely going to be taking pictures. I’ve got to save those memories.

I didn’t think I was going to be able to accomplish this in life and then have the opportunity to finally be able to do it. It will probably make me a little teary. My kids are so supportive that I imagine they’ll be doing the same thing, being all teared up. We all cry.